Inside the rally
Let me give you my thoughts unfiltered, without self-editing, all from memory and off-the-cuff –which seems apropos after attending a Donald Trump rally. Where to start? I could tell you that I’m glad I attended the rally. I ran into a colleague there and even laughed at some of Trump’s outrageous statements. (He is funny. Until you remind yourself he’s a vainglorious, selfish, ignorant, dangerous candidate, who you’d never want to become leader of the free world.) I could tell you I heard one nutty supporter yell out “Kill her!” when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned. Ironically, even after hearing that, I didn’t feel threatened by this crowd. I heard no N-bombs at the mention of President Obama’s name, so I suppose that’s progress of a sort — at least as far as this rally was concerned.
But then again I wasn’t in the rowdy section, where that woman was yelling from. Imagine a Trump rally as a college football crowd. Or better yet, imagine Trump as the sun in a solar system model. The closer and more central a rally supporter is in relation to him, the more noticeable the raw heat, the turbulence, the facial-surface tension and gravitational pull on the believer. But what I saw was still far from gravity defying, and most certainly shoe-string compared to other rallies I’ve been to over the years. The outer ring of his crowd started to tail off during the final quarter of Trump’s long-winded speech that began with frantic crowd energy, only to fizzle as he carried on for the length of a Bible and was considerably toned down by Trump standards. Clearly, Newt Gingrich had made a mark on this defiant and reluctant student. Trump was using notes and printouts at the lectern, but also balancing it with his usual impromptu commentary. A new speaking strategy.
Yes, Trump talked about that damn crying baby again. I laughed when he said if he lost the election he’d “blame Iowa” for wasting the $60 million he claimed to have spent on the general election so far. (He forgot to mention, specifically, the $100 million he raised in donations. But Trump rallies aren’t about specifics. They’re about emotions divorced from fact.) I laughed when he mocked the lack of reciprocity in America’s treaty with Japan, saying that if we were ever attacked, Japan was under no obligation to help and its citizens could “sit at home and watch their Sony televisions.” (Trump doesn’t comprehend that statements like that ARE foreign policy when uttered by the president. He just told our allies that he didn’t like the treaty, giving worry to Japan that a President Trump might disregard it. So much for the art of the deal, eh?)
In the space of a single paragraph Trump contradicted himself, at first calling NATO obsolete and then, “I like NATO. They just need to pay up.” I chuckled aloud (and got a few stares) when Trump launched into a nonsensical description of our military (which he clearly doesn’t understand), noticed the lack of response, so swiveled to a familiar third-person Trumpism: “Lots of people come up to me and say, Donald, you know so much about the military.” (I laughed aloud because I was waiting for one of those lines. Trump always has “a friend” who has a factory in whatever state he’s using to talk about economic demise and he always knows “people” who tell him his knowledge is vast on topics like foreign policy and the military. But those people and friends never have names. A Trump rally isn’t a place for reality.)
Yes, he finally featured a touch of policy, but most of his crowd seemed bored by that stuff, and so did Trump himself. He couldn’t resist veering off script. The crowd wanted to hear more about evil Hillary. They wanted to chant. They wanted to “lock her up” and “build that wall” — which they shouted with delight at all the right buzzwords. They wanted a heavier dose of the Crazy Trump. I kinda did too. Selfies were being taken everywhere. Suit-and-tie junior political-wannabees were trying to frame their faces in photos, Trump in the background, most-likely so they could quickly post it to Facebook to show off their politico chops. I was surprised that at the mention of jobs, most of the crowd politely golf clapped — not like the roar at ‘Crooked Hillary’, tales of immigrants run amok and a ubiquitous ISIS. Intellectually, Trump bores the hell out of me, so that’s it on the rally itself. But I want to tell you a story that reveals much more about Trump supporters, and it occurred to me before I walked into the rally …
Outside the rally
I’m horribly out of shape and it was hot as hell, so I sat on the Events Center steps at the entrance to the Trump rally to wipe my glimmering forehead with a blue paisley-patterned doo-rag, soaking up both sweat and the hustle of activity before me. For those who’ve never attended a political rally, the front entrance is the perfect place to people watch. The event before the event. It’s where protesters and attendees must pass by one another, striking little flare-ups like two flint stones. Initially, I found the incoming Trump crowd moderately sized (I could go through one of four metal detectors without having to wait behind a single person in line) and the protest nearly insignificant.
There was one African-American man, standing completely still, in a black-rimmed upturned Kangol hat and khakis holding a tiny sign that read “Love TRUMPS hate. Black Lives Matter.” I thought to myself, jokingly, “Well done, bro. Solo. At least there’s one black guy in all of Des Moines who gives a shit.” I doubt very much that he was even officially BLM. Just a dude with a sign. Across the street was a tightly organized contingent of supporters holding a giant sign that read “LATINO: Vote Iowa”. Maybe six or seven in the group. Clearly they were the only ‘official’ protest group. I assumed they were from LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and they wisely chose to stay at a distance from the hall entrance, presumably to avoid any direct interaction or fights.
There were a few smaller, unofficial fringe groups. Two white women stood stone-like. They looked like mother and daughter. Normal looking. But the odd way they were standing (like they were stultified by confusion) had me imaging them as a weird version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”. Side-by-side. Speechless. Perhaps they were wide-eyed and sensory-overloaded? It’s easy to feel that way. They stood next to the “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica/Trump That Bitch!” t-shirt hawkers and were giving away a free pocket U.S. Constitution to anyone who approached them and asked for one. (Most likely an echo of support for Khizr Khan’s DNC speech.) Their small sign said: “Ask for a Constitution. No, really!” So, I did. The older woman pulled one out from between her breasts and bra and handed it too me as if she was confused why I was asking for a Constitution. The whole transaction was just strange. I said, “Thank you so much.” The mother smiled slowly and looked at me curiously, as if she were determining if I was an alien or not. Lastly, was a group of less than seven people of mixed races walking in a circle, one with a megaphone, shouting pro-immigration catchphrases and inclusive slogans like, “Immigrants are welcome”.
I happened to be sitting on a bench, filming randomly, while a woman near me was talking with a photojournalist. She was loud, telling her horrible life story in gory detail to this complete stranger, likely because to her, even a guy holding a giant telephoto lens was as notable a journalist as Wolf Blitzer. It all gets blurred. She wanted an ear to listen to her. I eavesdropped. (She was so loud it couldn’t be avoided.) She claimed she was raped at some point in her life, her nose broken (not sure if the two details were related) and that she had problems on the job (unclear why), and that she was angry about the lack of help. (Unsure if this was in general or pertaining to the previous details.) Coincidentally, the immigration group’s chanting was getting louder and louder as she told her story. I could see the lady’s mental wheels turning. It was as if the woman was, for the first time, recognizing the words being chanted. Her mind jumped from the telling of her life story to this anonymous photojournalist, to the words, “Immigrants are welcome!” She grew more vehement as she told her story to the photojournalist, her language escalating, then she pivoted and pointed to the pro-immigration protesters: “… AND IT’S THESE IMMIGRANTS WHO FUCKING GET EVERYTHING! NO ONE EVER HELPED ME! THEY GET EVERYTHING FOR FREE!” She lunged aggressively toward the pro-immigration group, who were 10 yards away. (I stopped filming.) She cursed at them. She was nose-to-nose with the leader who was carrying the megaphone, the latter showing the patience of Sisyphus in standing still and allowing it to happen. It ended without skirmish. A protester (dressed like a cross between a gay-rights advocate and a jester) with a rainbow-colored umbrella stepped in and put her arm on the lady and said something calming that I was unable make out.
So, why did I stop filming? Because that woman’s pain is as real to her (true or not) as it was misdirected. I felt sad for her. Like a lot of Trump supporters, she has legitimate grievances, both personal and governmental. ISIS is a real problem. So is immigration and stagnant wages. So is this lady’s life experiences. But unlike Trump supporters, with whom I share some of those same concerns, I don’t blame immigrants, government, Hillary Clinton, President Obama, black people, progress or protesters. I’ve always faulted the system itself. I’ve never needed the false anger of nonsense like e-mails or Benghazi to allow me to voice myself. And I certainly don’t need a shyster like Trump to make me whole. I’m a writer, a learner, a lover of reading, of history, conversation, the arts and human interaction. But some people lack an outlet.
The sad lesson I learned from talking to more and more Trump supporters is that the connection many of them share is anger. Anger about everything. They’re generally under-educated (not all though) and don’t know how to express why they’re angry in a way people can understand, and they strive to find someone to listen. (And that’s where Trump and his distorted ideology comes to the rescue. Welcome to the club. The team. Team Hate.) This lady’s ramblings popped off like fireworks, jumped all over the place, jerky and flinching — moving from government grievances, to personal life, to immigration and back again. And I honestly couldn’t tell you if one ounce of what she was saying was true. She seemed to think so, but she was also unable to verbalize it lucidly or to distinguish one problem or story from the other. (Much like the few Trump supporters I know personally.) While being inside the rally can be deceptively entertaining, with the glitz of Trump and the intrigue of watching the spokes of the American political wheel — the truth of it all is that being at a Trump rally is a depressing maelstrom of misery, hurt and misplaced anger, that transforms into racism, xenophobia and worse. Where does this anger come from? Life in general? Who knows. Not sure they know either. Many of the supporters are living, breathing symptoms of malaise, exasperated by an illness called Trump. There are no facts, no realities, no cohesive rationale or narrative for many of these supporters — just a mishmash of phobias, unadulterated anger and a singular, warped faithfulness that their scary, personal fun-house prisms exist. I don’t make any excuses for these people — all I’m saying is that their clinging to Trump isn’t a mystery, it’s about fear and communal anger.